Killzone Shadow Fall is Guerrilla Games' latest first-person shooter in its long-running PlayStation exclusive series but the first built for PS4
Guerrilla Games' Killzone franchise of first-person shooters have become the hardcore flagpole for Sony-friendly gun fans, spanning six entries in a carnage-heavy series sometimes subtitled 'Nazis in space'. If Halo comparisons may have hobbled it slightly, it's certainly carved out its own niche among the PlayStation die-hards.
Known for being dark, dingy and hard as hell, it makes for a stridently uncompromising introduction into Sony's next-gen console. If Knack is the family crowd-pleaser, Resogun manna for the retro-arcade crowd and Contrast the quirky art-house effort for the indie fraternity, Killzone: Shadow Fall is for those who live and breathe head shots.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Plot
After what we'll politely call a homage to The Last of Us's opening, in which our immediate story expectations may be subverted but it feels so familiar it's lost its punch, the latest Killzone thrusts us quickly into the future and a familiar role of skilled gunman (skilled, at least, in the cut scenes) waiting for despatch.
Players take on the role of Lucas Kellen, a Shadow Marshall (that's an elite black ops agent of the future, y'all) who is tasked with keeping the familiarly fire-eyed Nazi-tinged forces of Helghast in check as the ongoing war between them and the Vektans (that's your lot) intensifies.
David Estes of Homeland fame voices the surrogate father and military superior Sinclair, giving you authoritative updates in what equate to a series of rather elongated, po-faced search and destroy missions around intergalactic substitutes for real-world wars.
Gamers wrapped up in the franchise's mythology may well get a kick off the in-universe referencing and political allegories, but we have to admit we've become lost and bogged down in a murky back story that never seems to transmit its intergalactic Second World War into much emotional heft; it's at least balanced.
More notably, though, what was once a tunnel shooter has been tweaked once again, with more open environments to explore now – which make the most of the graphical fidelity on offer, as well as the processing power – and a handy array of new abilities for your travels.
Alongside the usual futuristic firearms, Shadow Marshalls now have the power to see through walls (another nod to The Last of Us, though at least this time it makes sort of technical sense) and slow down time for brief periods, as well as harness a personal drone called The Owl like a bird of prey.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Controls
Shooters is as shooters does, and Killzone Shadow Fall doesn't rock the FPS basics boat, the usual walking and aiming with dual sticks, L2 and R2 for looking down the sights and firing respectively, and the actions buttons a raft of jumps, reloads and crouches (annoyingly the same button as sends you up ladders, leading to many a mistimed interchange).
The D-pad shows you your objectives, of which there can be many, sets off a tactical echo to scope your locale out (or feedback if you time it wrong and alert guards) or chooses the secondary attack option from some weapons (such as long-range power sniping, which are powerful but cumbersome in battle).
Options interacts with comics scattered strangely about the environment as collectibles and audio logs, which play rather startlingly from the DualShock 4 controller's speaker, though you can turn it off.
R1 cooks and throws grenades, while L1 activates The Owl, your mini-drone sidekick. This is also where the DualShock 4's Touch Panel is put to its most noticeable use so far, as it acts like a second D-pad, a swipe in any of the four directions assigning a mode before you unleash it with the bumper, be it defend, attack, hack or zipline.
This two-step control is no doubt so you don't send your Owl off by mistake, but in a tense firefight can be over-convoluted in having to swipe for what you want it to do and then point it in the right direction and then fire. Maybe it's just us, but we found it fairly unintuitive with another set of controls to remember.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Gameplay
Series veterans will know exactly what they're getting into and, as with most Killzones, the difficulty level here is punishingly hard (there are different levels, but none are a picnic). For some, that's what they'll be signing up for, but it's worth pointing out that if you're not a hardcore FPS fan, you will die, a lot – and sometimes just to find out what you're supposed to do.
Because while the new multi-faceted abilities can sometimes be a boon in the campaign, as they can give the player a sizeable edge over enemies they encounter at times – there's something very rewarding about sniping respawning foes as they visibly try and stop your Owl hacking their security system to prevent said respawns – the game finds other ways to undo you, even if you have the head shots down pat.
For one, the signposting of objectives is harshly unhelpful. Developer Guerrilla Games has tried to venture into more open-world pastures, introducing multiple approaches to levels that give you the choice of more tactical plans. Yet this goes out of the window when you're lost in between two of them, have done them in what is clearly the wrong order or are just unable to see the marker through the environment.
Several times we gave up and started the mission again, so as to unravel our head from the crossed wires and the sometimes confusing fiction.
Likewise, the option to go in loud or stealthily, such as sneaking into the Helghast side of the city by sticking to vents and tunnels, adds variety on paper, just as it did in Grand Theft Auto 5's heists, but is sadly of little consequence when the game isn't really built for stealth, so all hell breaks loose any way.
Despite the new gimmicks, it's sometimes best to think of Killzone Shadow Fall as the same old shooter with an attractive graphics upgrade and optional extras, as you'll spend the lion's share of your time slinging lead as ever. Guns are familiarly weighty and there is a decent armoury to dip into in both short and long range.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Graphics
As you'd expect from a next-gen title, Killzone Shadow Fall is a pretty beast when it wants to be. The long vistas and sun-drenched, glass-shimmering skylines make great demo fodder, showing off the new system's ability for scope as well as detail. Make no mistake, this is a game that will show off your new PS4.
The 1080p output is super smooth, 30fps in campaign and 60fps in multiplayer with no noticeable slowdown, shown off fantastically as you zipline to an assailant's vantage point, targeting him deftly as his face zooms recognisably into view.
Yet the game, by its very nature, still tends to opt for dark and dingy whenever it can – while trees, waterfalls and lens flare may litter the press screenshots, dark and oppressive often prevails.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Multiplayer
Since Killzone 2, multiplayer has always been where the Killzone series picks up brownie points (see Killzone: Mercenary bring online FPS to the PS Vita with some aplomb), and Shadow Fall again raises its own game with The Owl now in place, although here the handy drones only have one power per player.
You each choose a different class and assign abilities and weapons that work best with the way you play. As with most of this kind, 'Assault' are foot-soldiers, 'Support' work best backing up others and 'Scout' are the stealthy assassin types.
The online mode begins with all weapons and abilities unlocked so there's no chance of landing up in a lobby where you're out-gunned, but whether you're outclassed depends on the work you put in. Beyond that, there's not much else new here at present.
Perhaps the most interesting change is that Guerrilla will be relying on the online community to mod its own match types. The game is set to ship with 10 maps (tight and fluid, we found, though we've only played in a contained environment so far) and a load of assets and tools to help players construct their own matches – or Custom Warzones as they're called.
Fancy playing in a lobby with just Scouts armed with rocket launchers and cloaking devices? Now's your chance, weirdo. But while the developers know that some players will invariably create matches that are hugely imbalanced, they're still planning to promote the best and most enjoyable examples on the main menu screen, which is rather jolly.
Killzone Shadow Fall: Verdict
As a graphical showcase for the PS4, Killzone Shadow Fall fulfils its aim admirably; as a hardcore multiplayer monster to get the next-gen servers buzzing, it could well service those with FPS in the blood and maps on the mind; as a big blockbuster launch title, this is as big and blockbusting as the PS4 gets right now.
Yet as a slab of next-gen interactive entertainment, Killzone Shadow Fall left us a bit cold. Unnecessarily fiddly controls, confusing signposting and a story that's becoming increasingly forgettable the more serious it takes itself contribute to a stylistically showy game that can be difficult to engage with.
Once multiplayer is live in the UK, we'll see how it stacks up further, but for now we found ourselves enjoying the gun-packed, visually sumptuous meat at the campaign's middle, but not so much the precariously structured, implausibly plotted, poorly flagged-up sandwich constructed around it.
Killzone Shadow Fall release date: November 29 on PS4